Northern Virginia county sees signs of change amid crackdown

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue May 27 15:33:08 UTC 2008

No. Va. county sees signs of change amid crackdown

By KAREN MAHABIR – 19 hours ago

WOODBRIDGE, Va. (AP) — Business at Pedro Vargas' store, Club Video Mexico,
has slid so steeply that only eight people walked through the door one day
last month. One thing he has been selling, however, are one-way bus tickets
from northern Virginia to Texas and Mexico. Soon he'll be getting his own
ticket out of town — seeking a friendlier and more lucrative place to do
business. "The last few months have been very, very bad for us," said
Vargas, who plans to move this summer from Prince William County, about 25
miles southwest of Washington, to Utah, where he recently opened another
store. Many say Prince William's new crackdown on illegal immigrants has
created an environment so unfriendly that Hispanic people are leaving the
county of more than 350,000, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau was
nearly 15 percent Hispanic in 2006.

The county's policy, which has drawn heated debate and national attention,
directs police officers to check the immigration status of everyone they
arrest. Beginning July 1, illegal immigrants also will be denied certain
services, such as business licenses and mortgage and rental assistance.
"That's like a smack in the face to me," said Vargas, a 24-year-old Mexican
immigrant who is living in the U.S. legally. "I've been living here my whole
life, and now they pass this law?" It is difficult to measure how many
Hispanic people have left and their exact reasons for leaving. In addition
to immigrants' fears over the new policy, the souring economy and mortgage
crisis may be contributing to the departures. But anecdotal evidence
increasingly points to a sudden cultural and economic shift in the county's
Hispanic community.

Several Hispanic business owners say their sales have plummeted. Prince
William school officials say enrollment in English for speakers of other
languages classes fell nearly 6 percent to 12,645 students between Sept. 30
and March 31. Other northern Virginia counties had increases. Salvador
Caballero, pastor of Trono de Jehova Pentecostal Church in Woodbridge, said
attendance at his Spanish services has shrunk to about 130 people from 200
in recent months. Some people, he said, have stopped coming because they're
afraid to be out in public, and others have moved to other states or back to
their home countries. One family of seven packed up and went to Texas. "All
they told me is they were going because they were afraid here," Caballero
said. "We're losing a lot of people here in Prince William. I hope they're
not going to be sorry later."

Stephen Fuller, director for the Center for Regional Analysis at George
Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said the policy could end up tainting the
county's image and scaring off investors. "I think this will affect the
county for several years even if they reverse the policy tonight," Fuller
said. "The damage has been done. It's like personal reputation; it's hard to
build that back." Supporters of the changes, however, say the crackdown is
working as intended. Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman
Corey A. Stewart said it already has had a "tremendous positive effect on
the quality of life."

County supervisors recently approved spending $2.6 million for the
initiative. Prince William also has incurred higher-than-expected costs at
the local jail due to overcrowding. Authorities were taking weeks to pick up
suspected illegal immigrants rather than the 72 hours mandated under a
partnership between the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
County officials were forced to pay to house inmates in other jails in the

A policy that went into effect in March directed police to check the
residency status of anyone who is detained, no matter how minor the offense,
if they believed the person might in the United States illegally. Prince
William County supervisors changed the policy last month; now police check
the immigration status of all suspects, but only after they are arrested.

Stewart says the change will reduce the possibility of racial-profiling
accusations because everyone will now be checked.

But Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union, said the organization still opposes the policy.

"This is an ordinance that through and through sends the message to police
that they ought to be stopping and detaining people that speak a foreign
language and appear to be from another country," he said.

Nancy Lyall, of the immigrant advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders, says
she doesn't know what effect the policy change will have, but that it
appears to have already damaged the Hispanic community.

"The community is still completely devastated," she said. "And for those
obviously that have left, there's certainly no reason for them to go back."

At the taco restaurant Ricos Tacos Moya, business has dropped by about 50
percent, and owner Salvador Moya said he doesn't know how much longer he'll
be able to hold on. He was already forced to shut the doors this year on a
second, much larger location in nearby Dumfries, where the bar and dance
floor drew some 200 customers each weekend.

"We don't know what we're going to do," said the Mexican native, who moved
to the area 20 years ago and has worked his way up from being a dishwasher.
"When the law started, business went down, down, down."

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